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Why violence has re-emerged in Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict

Stephan Astourian, director of UC Berkeley's Armenian Studies Program and an associate adjunct professor, discussed the prospects for peace, the goals of international intervention and how the Armenian community here in the U.S. is responding.

Bursts of explosions are seen during fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijan's forces near Shushi outside Stepanakert, the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. Fighting over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh entered sixth week on Sunday.

Bursts of explosions are seen during fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijan’s forces near Shushi outside Stepanakert, the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. Fighting over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has entered its sixth week. (AP Photo)

Fierce battles continue in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that has killed at least 1,000 people, and possibly many more. The fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan threatens to destabilize the South Caucasus region, in what has been one of the world’s most protracted wars; three cease-fires have already collapsed since hostilities flared at the end of September.

Berkeley News spoke with Stephan Astourian, director of UC Berkeley’s Armenian Studies Program and an associate adjunct professor, about the prospects for peace, the goals of international intervention and how the Armenian community here in the U.S. is responding.

Berkeley News: One of the world’s oldest conflicts, a territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has re-erupted with the heaviest clashes in years. What sparked the latest conflict?

Stephan Astourian: This is a full-scale war, with many post-modern characteristics (use of Islamic terrorists, massive recourse to drones, a proxy war for Turkey). In this sense, it differs from all the previous clashes since 1994. In my mind, at least, these are the key factors:

First, the Azerbaijani leadership believes that their country has reached the apex of its comparative military advantage in relation to Armenia. Indeed, from 2012-14 Azerbaijan has spent at least $12 billion to buy armaments.

Stephen Astourian wearing glasses

UC Berkeley Armenian Studies Program dIrector and associate adjunct professor Stephan Astourian

Second, the slump in oil prices, the resulting economic and social crises, and the country’s declining oil reserves make it unlikely that Azerbaijan can sustain such military spending in the future.

Third, the negotiations have reached a deadlock. Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev adopted a maximalist position, demanding that the surrounding regions of Nagorno-Karabakh and Nagorno-Karabakh itself be returned to Azerbaijan. He also claimed that parts of Armenia — the region of Zangezur and the capital, Yerevan — are Azerbaijani territories. In turn, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power in the summer of 2018 as a result of a bloodless democratic regime change, the so-called “Velvet Revolution,” inherited a negotiating position from his semi-authoritarian and corrupt predecessors to which he could not agree. Thus, to counter the Azerbaijani position and his opponents, Pashinyan stated clearly that Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenian, period.

Fourth, there is the Turkish factor. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems determined to expand the influence of his country in various directions. He is involved in conflicts in northern Syria and Iraq, in Libya and in the eastern Mediterranean. It would seem that he also wants to have a say in the South Caucasus, a traditionally Russian zone of influence, through Azerbaijan. We now know that Turkey planned and leads the Azerbaijani war effort.

Finally, the precise timing of the conflict can be explained by secondary factors: the U.S. is busy with the presidential elections, not to mention the COVID-19 crisis, and the Russian Federation is no less busy with crises in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan and with conflicts in the Ukraine, Syria and Libya.

The Nagorno-Karabakh region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but controlled by ethnic Armenians. Can you provide some context about the area in dispute and its importance?

Historically, Nagorno-Karabakh (the mountainous part of Karabakh) has been an Armenian-inhabited region, one of the provinces of historic Armenia known in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages as Artsakh. When the short-lived independent republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia were brought under Soviet control, the Bolsheviks had to make decisions about contested regions.

Following the Sovietization of Armenia, the Azerbaijani Bolsheviks accepted the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh should be part of Soviet Armenia, but they subsequently changed their position. The Caucasian Bureau of the Communist party decided on July 4, 1921 that the region should be attributed to Armenia. However, Joseph Stalin joined the meeting that evening and on July 5, the Caucasian Bureau was forced to change its decision and to attach Nagorno-Karabakh to Soviet Azerbaijan. At that time, more than 90% of that region’s population was Armenian.

Soviet-Kemalist collaboration in the early post-World War I period seems to have been the main cause for this change, but there are also other explanations, such as “divide and rule” policies. The problem festered throughout the Soviet period, with several complaints on the part of the Karabakh Armenians pertaining to discrimination, injustice and the slow but steady influx of Azerbaijanis into Nagorno-Karabakh, which was aimed at diluting the Armenian majority population. The issue erupted in 1988, when General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) paved the way for greater freedom of expression in the Soviet Union. Karabakh Armenians’ demands to be attached to Armenia were answered by a series of anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan, in the cities of  Sumgayit, Kirovabad (currently Ganja) and Baku. Suddenly, what was an administrative-territorial problem took on an ethnic dimension, reviving memories of the Armenian Genocide (1915-17). Ethnic cleansing in both republics paralleled a low-intensity war until 1992, when matters morphed into a full-scale war until 1994. The Azerbaijanis were defeated and Karabakh Armenians moved into seven adjacent regions, which they have controlled until now.

… this issue is a classic instance of the clash of two international law principles: territorial integrity and self-determination.”

– Stephan Astourian

Yes, Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which also controls the seven surrounding regions, is unrecognized. However, this issue is a classic instance of the clash of two international law principles: territorial integrity and self-determination. The former has so far taken precedence and the latter has been applied mostly in colonial cases. However, the West did not hesitate to recognize the independence of Kosovo in 2008 when the Kosovo Assembly declared its independence from Serbia. The negotiations that have been dealing with the Nagorno-Karabakh issue since about 1995 under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), more specifically the co-chairs (American, French, and Russian) of its Minsk Group, are based on both principles. As a matter of fact, these principles are enshrined in the so-called “Madrid Principles” and its subsequent modifications that constitute the central document of the negotiation process.

It’s been reported that recent weeks have been the most violent, bloody, and deadly since the 1994 ceasefire. What needs to happen for a diplomatic resolution and, ultimately, peace to prevail? And why have diplomatic efforts to end the conflict failed previously?

Two ceasefire agreements were agreed upon over the past weeks, brokered by Russia and France, mainly. These ceasefires were breached immediately by the Azerbaijani forces. The reasons why the war continues are simple. First, President Aliyev wants to “liberate” Nagorno-Karabakh and, after almost a month of ferocious fighting, he is far from having achieved that goal. Despite a massive qualitative and quantitative advantage in terms of armaments and manpower, his army has only succeeded in driving Karabakh forces from the southern flatlands along the Iranian border and a very small area to the north, seizing around eleven or twelve percent of the Karabakh-controlled territories so far as Oct. 26. It is not even clear whether they fully drove them out of the southern territories or whether the Armenian commanders decided to order a tactical retreat to the hilly and mountainous terrain further north — less favorable to the Azerbaijanis and their drones — and to wait for winter weather to set in, usually around early November in that region.

Second, this war was planned by Turkey and is led by Turkish high-ranking officers supervised by the Turkish minister of defense. More than 600 Turkish military personnel of various kinds are in Azerbaijan, coordinating the war effort. Soon, a regiment of special forces specialized in mountain warfare will be brought from Kurdistan to help the Azerbaijanis fight in mountainous terrain. Turkish President Erdoğan has clear goals: He wants Turkey to join the Minsk Group co-chairs and to have a say in the South Caucasus. An Azerbaijani victory is vital for him to reach these goals. In addition, it would be disastrous for him and his image in Turkey and internationally if this war were to end in a stalemate or, even worse, in an Azerbaijani defeat. He is egging Aliyev on to continue it.

For peace to prevail, both sides should be willing to make concessions. They should also prepare their public opinions to such concessions. We are far from such a situation unless a totally unexpected breakthrough were to take place. In Azerbaijan in particular, hatred for the Armenians has been institutionalized in school textbooks and systematically promoted in the media during the past fifteen years. In Armenia, there is no such institutionalization, but the memory of the Armenian Genocide and of the anti-Armenian pogroms that occurred in Azerbaijan from 1988 to 1990 have generated a very negative image of the “Turk,” to whom the Azerbaijanis are assimilated.

Is there the possibility that this latest conflict might turn into something much different, larger and ruinous?

Yes, the potential for Russia and/or Iran to get involved in this conflict is real. Russian troops have been deployed in Armenia, along the border with the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh and that of the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, an Azerbaijani exclave located to the south of the Armenian capital and territorially linked with Turkey. In turn, the Islamic Republic of Iran has just deployed the “Imam Zaman” ground brigade of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) along the Araks river, facing the area where Azerbaijani troops have advanced over the past ten days.

For peace to prevail, both sides should be willing to make concessions. They should also prepare their public opinions to such concessions. We are far from such a situation unless a totally unexpected breakthrough were to take place.”

– Stephan Astourian

It would be incautious and arrogant to predict with absolute certainty that the conflict will expand. My sense is that if more Turkish troops are brought to fight with the Azerbaijanis, chances will increase that things will further degenerate. That could also be the case if Azerbaijani/Turkish forces mount a more significant attack on the territory of Armenia proper. This is likely to lead to Russian intervention, since that country has a defense treaty with Armenia.

How has the international community responded?

The Russian Federation and the Minsk Group co-chairs have been the most involved in trying to bring about a ceasefire. For the first three weeks of the conflict, which started on Sept. 27, the U.S. has been mostly missing in action, or inaction. President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien appear to be fully engaged with all the sides involved in this conflict. For once, major differences do not seem to exist between the U.S. and Russian positions. The U.S. played the leading role in imposing the “humanitarian” ceasefire agreed upon on Oct. 25 by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. It was immediately breached the next day on the southern front, presumably by the Azerbaijanis who were less than enthusiastic about it, unlike Armenia. Europe, for its part, was unable to adopt a common foreign policy. French President Macron and some other countries would like to impose sanctions on Turkey. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italy, Spain, Hungary, and Malta oppose such a decision. As for NATO General-Secretary Stoltenberg, he is on record as stating that he is deeply concerned, as calling for a ceasefire, and as claiming that NATO is not part of this conflict, even though Turkey is a NATO member.

California has the largest population of Armenians living in the United States. What has been the reaction here to the latest conflict and what hopes are being raised for a permanent end to the fighting this time?

The mobilization of California’s Armenian communities has been significant. In particular, the mobilization of Armenians who emigrated from Armenia and its surrounding countries starting in the 1990s has been remarkable, the more so since that segment of the Armenian community is not involved in any significant way in the traditional Armenian organizations. The mobilization of the youth has also been impressive.

In the Bay Area specifically, anti-Armenian hate crimes, such as the numerous graffiti in Azerbaijani on the walls of the Armenian school in San Francisco, then the arson that has gutted the Armenian community center on Commonwealth Avenue, and subsequently the shots fired at that school, have raised the consciousness of many community members. As a matter of fact, the Armenian-Azerbaijani antagonism has been exported to various diaspora communities over the past six months, with incidents and clashes taking place in Russia, Western Europe, and the U.S. The so-called ultra-nationalistic, pan-Turkist “Grey Wolves,” have also been in some of these, in particular in France.

Insofar as the Armenian community is concerned, I cannot discern the existence of significant hopes that a permanent end to fighting will result from this conflict. Unless of course this war results in the thorough defeat of one of the two sides, the prevailing pessimism might actually be, unfortunately, realism.